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Publisher's Summary

This riveting audiobook narrated by Phyllida Nash traces the history of the city that led the West out of the ruins of the Roman Empire

At the end of the fourth century, as the power of Rome faded and Constantinople became the seat of empire, a new capital city was rising in the West. Here, in Ravenna on the coast of Italy, Arian Goths and Catholic Romans competed to produce an unrivaled concentration of buildings and astonishing mosaics. For three centuries, the city attracted scholars, lawyers, craftsmen, and religious luminaries, becoming a true cultural and political capital. Bringing this extraordinary history marvelously to life, Judith Herrin rewrites the history of East and West in the Mediterranean world before the rise of Islam and shows how, thanks to Byzantine influence, Ravenna played a crucial role in the development of medieval Christendom. 

Drawing on deep, original research, Herrin tells the personal stories of Ravenna while setting them in a sweeping synthesis of Mediterranean and Christian history. She narrates the lives of the Empress Galla Placidia and the Gothic king Theoderic and describes the achievements of an amazing cosmographer and a doctor who revived Greek medical knowledge in Italy, demolishing the idea that the West just descended into the medieval "Dark Ages." 

Based on the latest archaeological findings, this monumental book provides a bold new interpretation of Ravenna's lasting influence on the culture of Europe and the West.

©2020 Judith Herrin (P)2020 Princeton University Press

Critic Reviews

"Magisterial - an outstanding book that shines a bright light on one of the most important, interesting, and under-studied cities in European history. A masterpiece." (Peter Frankopan, author of The Silk Roads: A New History of the World)

"This is a masterful study as splendid as Ravenna's mosaics. Bringing to new life the city and the people who shaped it, Herrin explores Ravenna's role as a rival of Rome, a Byzantine outpost in the West, and a model for Charlemagne's imperial aspirations - in short, as a crucible of Europe." (Claudia Rapp, author of Brother-Making in Late Antiquity and Byzantium: Monks, Laymen, and Christian Ritual

"A masterwork by one of our greatest historians of Byzantium and early Christianity. Judith Herrin tells a story that is at once gripping and authoritative and full of wonderful detail about every element in the life of Ravenna. Impossible to put down." (David Freedberg, author of The Power of Images

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    5 out of 5 stars

Worthy book, stingy production.

Herrin is a trained historian. She knows her way around Late Antiquity, when the Western Roman Empire was falling apart and the beginnings of what would be the European states were coalescing out of the wreckage. Fortunately for her (and now for us), she also knows her way around Ravenna, the beautiful city in eastern Italy which was the last capital of Western Rome and then was the de facto capital of the Eastern Roman toehold on the penninsula. The Eastern Roman Empire (inexplicably called the Byzantine Empire these days) lasted for another 1,000 years (give or take) after the West fell. It was a military and cultural bulwark of the forming states in the West (which paid it back by wrecking and looting Constantinople, its capital, in the Fourth Crusade, and taking over most of its territory). Ravenna disappeared into the Papal territories in the 10th century, with the Franks and what was left of the Lombards exercising various degrees of politial power. Herrin shows how the city was a window into the dissolving power of the Western Empire, the Empire's replacement by an imitation-Roman Gothic kingdom, the destruction of that kingdom by the Eastern Roman reconquest of its old territory, and the slipping away of the East's hold as it was attacked by Persian and then Arab forces from the East and had to battle for its own survival. The Western Church, local warlords, and tribes from the north, grabbed power and territory and battled things out. Herrin also shows how the Western Church - the ancestor of the modern Roman Cahtolic Church - developed and began to differentiate itself from the once-universal Christian church - what we now know as Eastern Orthodoxy. Ravenna was a city of beautiful palaces and churches containing stunning art. The palaces are gone: they were looted and hauled off for parts by the locals and the Franks. But, since the Lombards and Franks were Christians by the time they had power in Ravenna, the churches were spared and have some amazingly beautiful late Roman mosaics and are themselves fantastic structures: the "Mausoleum"[it isn't] of Empress Galla Placidia and the neighboring church of San Vitale, are unforgettable experiences, as are the two chuches of San Appolinaire and the giant edifice of Gothic King Theodoric's tomb. But here's where this presentation is a kind of swindle. No book about Ravenna is complete without illustrations showing the treasures of the City and - for no explained reason - this one doesn't come with a link to any illustrations, so you must find what Herrin is talking about on your own. What a disgrace! Herrin's writing is fine. It's not dry academic stuff nor is as vivid as, for example, John Julius Norwich, but it gets the job done and is fine to listen to, especially in Trent's elegant reading (which comes with some odd pronunciations - I never heard the first syllable of Syracuse pronounced to rhyme with "sky" before and have no idea what to make of her pronunciations of "Pepin" - but that's a built-in hazard with audio books and Trent is a very good reader). The story of Ravenna is well worth hearing and you probably won't find it more accurately or articulately laid out than it is here. I enjoyed my time with it, which made the absence of the illustrations even more painful. What a sad blotch on an otherwise impressive work!

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brilliant, beautiful, important

Thank you, Dr. Herrin for this exemplary account of a much overlooked period. The grace of your writing style and the depth of your erudition are to be treasured.

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My favorite history book ever

I am extremely interested in this era of history. I also love Ravenna and was thrilled when I was able to visit it a few years ago. So I was excited to listen to Herrin’s book.
She did not disappoint. By focusing on the city of Ravenna, she was able to explain much of the very complex and confusing world of this era. Her style of writing is easy to read, while also being well documented and researched. I learned a lot about my beloved Ravenna, but I also gained a greater perspective and understanding of the whole of Europe during this most formative time of European history.

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Ms. Herrin has a simple faith in complexity.

As James Stephens said of the young wife: “She could play the piano with such skill that it is difficult to explain why she played it badly.”
Too much. Too boring. Too many unnecessary detail. Too many mentions of the no doubt indispensable Galla Placidia! Too many wars between the ruling dynasts and too many cat fights between the Christian sects. Soul sick am I and weary. This story could have been told in so many better ways.
This audiobook really needed a better editor, a narrator who can correctly pronounce the words, and a pdf file so we can, for example, keep track of the endlessly named Theodores.
The chronology is difficult to follow as the author switches between timelines and themes.
James Frankenberg wrote: “We should never be too clear.” Perhaps that can serve as a epithet for Ms. Herrin’s book.